Child Vaccines: Some Parents Ill at Ease


Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes probably wasn’t thinking about child vaccines or parental rights when he said “the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

But the intersection of private rights and the public good addressed by Holmes is a subject much on the minds of parents, doctors, and public health experts these days, as a vocal and apparently growing minority of parents and alternative health care practitioners question the need for, or safety of, childhood immunizations.

“We are seeing in some states an increasing proportion of families who are choosing to delay or not immunize their children, and unfortunately, when this happens, we do see sporadic outbreaks of diseases like pertussis, and autism-like symptoms after receiving childhood vaccinations. The federal government recently agreed to award the Poling family compensation from a vaccine injury fund established to encourage vaccine research and development and protecting vaccine manufacturers from liability by offering an alternative to lawsuits.

But lost or buried in many of the news stories about the case was the fact that Hannah Poling also suffers from a mitochondrial dysfunction disorder, an extremely rare defect in the mitochondria or “power supplies” found in the nuclei of human cells. The disorder puts her at increased risk for side effects not just from immunization, but also from common infectious diseases, says Halsey of Johns Hopkins.

“That’s not a case of overwhelming the immune system, it’s oxidative stress associated with many infections, and children with these disorders can just get a mild cold at a certain time in their lives, and they will develop this neurologic deterioration, so just any stress will cause it in these children,” Halsey explains.

Denehy, who practices pediatrics at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, tells parents who worry about immune overload from vaccines that the simple bacterium that causes smallpox, a related but far more deadly disease. The word “vaccination” is derived from vaccinia, the Latin name for the cowpox virus.

Today, smallpox, once one of mankind’s most devastating diseases, has been wiped from the face of the earth and is known to exist only for investigational purposes in small quantities in tightly guarded laboratories.

Even the staunchest opponents of mandatory immunization acknowledge that the smallpox vaccination, and select others, such as the health care professionals trained in both conventional Western medicine and alternative therapies, feel that the potential risks of vaccines and the incidence of vaccine-related adverse events have been underreported, and that children are subjected to too many vaccines with too little proof of their and safety and effectiveness.

“We have been asking for almost three decades now for the basic science research to be done to identify those children who are biologically and genetically at higher risk than others for suffering vaccine injury and death,” she tells WebMD. “Those studies have not been done; the authorities refuse to do them.”

But to those parents who wish to “cherry pick” vaccinations for their children in the belief some vaccines are unnecessary, Denehy offers this cautionary advice:

“After you’ve been in practice for a while, you see children who are perfectly normal who are affected by these diseases, and 100 perfectly normal, healthy children a year died from chickenpox/varicella before we had the vaccine,” she says. “We had a child who died here in Rhode Island, whose mother didn’t believe in vaccines and took her to a chickenpox party — a perfectly normal 4-month-old who died.

“You can’t always assume that nothing bad is going to happen to your child.”